Can I Have Another Snack?
Can I Have Another Snack?
30: The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar with Dr. Karen Throsby (Part 1)

30: The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar with Dr. Karen Throsby (Part 1)

What we don't talk about when we talk about sugar

No transcript...

Hey everyone! Happy New Year and welcome back to the Can I Have Another Snack? podcast, where we talk about food, bodies, and identity, especially through the lens of parenting. I’m Laura Thomas, I’m an anti-diet registered nutritionist and I also write the Can I Have Another Snack newsletter.

I am really excited to share this week’s conversation; it is the perfect antidote to the January diet culture hellscape that we’re all living through. My guest today is gender studies professor and author Dr. Karen Throsby, whose book Sugar Rush (affiliate link) was an absolute highlight for me in 2023. I have been recommending it to everyone. Karen’s thesis in the book is essentially how the public health and popular science discourse around sugar obscures the social and structural inequality responsible for health disparities and by doing so, actively embeds it further into the fabric of society. 

I’ve split this conversation into two parts - so you’ll get the second half of the conversation in two weeks. But today we talk about how the conversation around sugar being bad for you is framed with so much certainty, whereas the science holds a lot more doubt and ambiguity. We talk about how nostalgic fantasies of a past where nobody ate sugar and everyone climbed trees all day long erases the unpaid labour of women, and how even modern day efforts to eliminate sugar are dependent on unequal distribution of household labour and are framed as work that is pleasurable, or else women get scapegoated as bad mothers. So much great stuff in this episode and like I said, I’ll share part two soon, where we get into the rhetoric around ultra-processed food, how the so-called war on ‘obes*ty’ fails to live up to it’s own aims and loads more. 

Before we get to Karen just a quick reminder that the entire CIHAS universe is reader and listener supported, meaning I literally can’t do this work without your support. If you like what we do here and want to help keep the lights on then you can upgrade your account to become a paying subscriber - it’s £5/month or £50/year. Not only do you support the time and labour that goes into producing the newsletter and podcast, but you get access to our weekly community discussion thread Snacky Bits. You can comment on posts, and you get access to my monthly Dear Laura column and the full archive. You’ll also see a bit more bonus content on free essays that’s just for paid subscribers in the coming months, so make sure you’re signed up to get in on that action. Head to or check out the show notes for that link.

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Here’s the transcript in full:


Laura: Karen, I'd love if you could begin by sharing a bit about you and the work that you do.

Karen: Yes, thank you. So I'm a sociologist, I'm a professor of gender studies at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. And throughout my 20 plus years of career, I've been looking at issues of gender, bodies, technology and health.

So I've done work on reproductive technology, on surgical weight management, I've done work on endurance sports and what you do to a body when you engage in endurance sports socially, what does that mean? And then most recently, I've been working on what I've been calling the social life of sugar. How can we think about sugar in a moment when sugar is being attacked as a kind of health demon, the constant in my career has been this idea about bodies and how we try and change bodies or how bodies change and then most recently in relation to food and particularly sugar,

Laura: Tell us a little bit more about that because, you know, you kind of say this almost quite flippantly. “Oh yeah, I’ve been doing sugar”, but that's like a whole like undertaking in terms of research and then the book that came out of that. So, could you maybe tell us a little bit about the research that you did that went into, you know, studying the social life of sugar and, and maybe a little bit about the process of writing the book as well?

Karen: Yes, of course. So, it started from observation, which is where a lot of research comes from – of noticing just a lot of sugar talk in the media, for example. And so, I decided to look at it more formally. So, I actually did a, I started with newspapers and I looked at newspaper coverage from 2000. So I ended up looking to 2020 when I searched for newspaper articles in nine UK newspapers. So across the political spectrum and broadsheet, tabloids as well, looking for articles of quite substantive articles like sort of 500 words or more with the word sugar in the title.

And then I filtered those. So I took out all of the irrelevant things. So there's lots of mentions of Alan Sugar, uh, for example, lots of sugar metaphors, like a ‘spoonful of sugar’ that you get in business reporting. And I took all those out. And then I kind of looked at the pattern and what you see from 2000 to about 2012, it's very, a very low level of coverage, just trickling along very low.

And then in 2013, it starts to shoot up. And then by 2016, it's really high and it peaks there. And then it drops off a little bit, picks up again at 2018 and then slowly falls away. And so I took 2013 through to towards the end of 2020 as the period of study, and that ended up with about 550 newspaper articles that then became my objective analysis of what's happening with sugar.

And then I dug out anything else I could find. So policy documents and newspaper, medical articles, self-help books, popular science tracks – anything I could find about sugar. And that became the body of data that I then was analyzing just to see: how is sugar being talked about? Who is being excluded when we talk about sugar?

Trying to see it, not literally, but thinking about what is sugar doing socially when we talk about it.

Laura: Yeah. It's, it's an, I'm just thinking of this from a research perspective. It's a huge undertaking. I'm just imagining you going through your Nvivo now, it's just like,

Karen: exactly. You're right there. I mean, it was an unusual project for me, because all my other projects have been broadly ethnographic. So I've actually gone and observed groups, a social, social organization, and so on, um, or done interviews and things like that. So this was a departure for me that it's very text based. It's looking at how it's reproduced and represented in text, in different kinds of text.

But you ask the same questions, what is a newspaper trying to achieve in writing in this particular way? What is a popular science track trying to achieve in writing about sugar in a particular way? And then you can start thinking about, so what does sugar mean in different contexts, but also what kind of work does sugar enable us to do socially?

Laura: Mm hmm. So can you tell us a little bit more about the sort of, maybe just like the headline conclusions that you drew out with this and then and we can kind of get into some of the more specifics in a second.

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Karen: Yeah, I mean the bottom line for me was that sugar and what I'm calling the attack on sugar, this targeting that happens quite suddenly around this time and and taking over from fat in that sense as being the enemy that this talk around sugar appears to be in relation to everyone. It's seen as a problem, a problem that we all have. So you'll see the opening line of, there's a Public Health England document in 2015. And the opening line is ‘we're eating too much sugar’, and it's bad for our health. Right? So it seems like it's everybody's problem.

But actually, what happens when you do that is that you ignore social inequality. And so the core argument of the book is that actually by focusing on a single nutrient – like sugar – as the cause of multiple problems, you actually make inequalities worse rather than better. Because it actually relies on erasing inequality from the start to say, we eat too much sugar.

So a sociologist would always want to ask, well, who is ‘we’ here? And in fact, what we see by looking at the newspaper coverage and so on, is those who are deemed to be eating ‘too much sugar’ are also those who are already the most marginalized in society. So it provides cover for actually an intensification of attacks on marginalized groups in society. And I argue in the book that that rise that happens in 2012, 2013, is actually related to the implementation of austerity measures in the UK, which is the retrenchment of benefits, the cutting welfare and so on, and targeting particular groups as somehow as ‘over consumers’ of public resources.

And therefore they're easily translated as ‘over consumers’ in other ways. And so that this figure of the kind of poor, fat, irresponsible, individual as a caricature comes up as kind of someone who can be blamed and targeted. So the argument in the book is really that by focusing on a single nutrient, you not only ignore those groups, but you actually compound the inequalities that they're already experiencing.

Laura: Yeah, you're furthering the marginalization and the stigmatization of those groups. There are a few things within what you've just said there that I wanted to kind of come back and revisit if it's okay. And the first is this idea of certainty. You know, you say at the beginning of those Public Health England documents, and I think throughout the headlines and the media reporting and some of the documentaries that you discuss, there's this thread of certainty.

Certainty that sugar is bad for us. Certainty that sugar makes us fat. Certainty that fat is even a bad thing in the first place. Can you talk to us a bit more about how certainty is used in this way as a sort of political device to drive discourse in a specific direction?

Karen: Yeah, that's a really good question.

And what we can see with these certainty claims, I mean, that sugar is bad for you. That's the core claim is that it's bad for us. But actually, when you look at the arguments against sugar, there isn't very much agreement over what kind of problem it is in the first place. There's two core ways that this plays out.

The first is that it's bad for you because it makes you fat. Because it's empty calories. It's more calories than you need. So that's why it's bad for you. It could be anything, but it just happens to be something that is very calorie dense without bringing other nutritional benefit. The other version of the problem of sugar is that it is actively toxic.

So not just a source of calories as much as any other, but that it's actively disrupting; it's creating a metabolic dysfunction and disruption. That it creates this chaos around your management of blood sugar and brain chemistry and everything. And they seem to be in opposition to each other, but in fact have managed to coalesce around the certainty that sugar is bad; almost as if it doesn't really matter why it's bad, but it just is.

And it's created a kind of lowest common denominator platform that brings everyone together. And so it's provided a space where multiple vested interests can meet. So politicians, for example, have a vested interest in this kind of narrative because it provides targets of blame. It provides a site where you can appear to be doing something about a problem.

And people who are writing books saying that it's toxic are invested in that because they have a kind of a brand that is then created. And then there's a whole diet industry that is invested in the idea of empty calories and, you know, and, and so on. And so I'm not suggesting it's a terrible plot. Right.

I'm just saying it provides an opportunity for multiple interests to come together. And I think there's a number of ways this is facilitated. So, for example, around the idea that ‘ob*sity’ is a disaster. Is an awful thing. Tthat ‘ob*sity’ is terrible. Around the idea that sugar is ‘addictive’. Yeah. Which is a very common thing that's used.

Again, what constitutes addiction is extremely vague. And then there's a nostalgia that comes back. We didn't use to eat like this. Sort of in the 1950s, post war rationing. Although we didn't eat like this. We all just ran around all day and we never ate sugar and we were all fit and healthy. And so those things kind of tie these together to create the certainty that sugar is bad.

And that we eat too much of it and it's bad for our health. And so certainty for me, this certainty is manufactured and it is providing political cover for doubt. Which, actually, when you look at the science, science is always much more riddled with doubt and uncertainty than the claims that are made for it.

Um, and often that doubt is in the journal articles and so on, but then it gets sort of extracted as a certainty. And so we get this, this sense of certainty that creates an imperative to act. A sense of urgency. For example, and sugar by sort of, as its proxy, is framed as a problem about which something must be done.

And so in a sense, then, the need is to be seen to act. And so you could have an intervention, say, like the sugar tax, um, which I would argue is much more about being seen to do something that actually achieving its stated goal. And so I think what this sense of certainty does is it provides cover, and it also erases the inconvenient uncertainties around why do some people eat in particular ways? What are the social reasons? What are the inequalities and the other factors that determine how people choose to eat? And I think those get erased by that certainty. So it's very functional in that way.

Laura: Mm hmm. Everything just gets flattened down and collapsed in this, yeah, really problematic way.

I mean, there's, there was so much that we could kind of get into what you just said there. But I suppose one section of the book, I mean, I enjoyed all of your book, but I really enjoyed the section where you talked about nostalgia as well, that you just mentioned there in this kind of like going back to a time where we didn't have much sugar in our diet and we, you know, we had all these home cooked meals, everything was, you know, freshly pulled from the ground and we could just climb trees all day.

First of all, what kind of utopia were these men living in anyway? But secondly, I think the part that I really appreciated there was how you talked about the erasure of women's labor in making that a reality in the first place. Do you want to just say a little bit about that? Because I want to come back to gender in a bigger, more expansive sense in a second, but I would just be interested while we're there.

Karen: In that particular context, you know, there is this vision that it's never, it's never located strictly in time, but it clearly speaks to some kind of post war, sort of immediate post war imagination – fantasy really – that rests, if we were to accept that this vision is true, that everyone was running around, burning off calories, never snacking, coming home to splendid, home cooked, home grown meals.

What isn't discussed, of course, is who cooked these meals? How does this food appear? You know, this, this handcrafted food. And of course, that is the completely unrecognized and largely unpaid labor of women. That a lot of these fantasies around the sugar free life are built on this idea. That food just somehow happens that what's often referred to as real food.

It just sort of happens. And then the labor of women is completely written out. Which of course then leaves standing that expectation that women should do that work because it doesn't even count as work because; it's just kind of what's done. I mean, interestingly, the other, the other dimension to the nostalgia is a much longer view, which is this idea of a kind of paleolithic past, but again, is never located strictly in time, but definitely pre-agricultural revolution, where we were hunter gatherers and basically it was based on times of plenty. So you would only eat fruit when the berries came out and that would be it. But of course, again, what gets written out here is there's a great focus on hunting and on meat consumption, but actually it erases the work of women who would have been doing the gathering and the preparing of food.

And there's, there's interesting archaeological research that points out that actually We find bones from hunting and tools that were used to hunt. But a lot of the preparation of vegetables and fruit and so on leaves no trace. And so the work of women is literally erased in these stories.

Yeah. And, and it just disappears.

Laura: And presumably as well, there's a lot of embodied wisdom that gets kind of passed through generations to know like, which berries are safe to eat. And there's another layer to it, it feels like there, that that's also being erased.

Karen: Yes. Who are the bearers of knowledge? Who teaches? The next generation and so on is lost in the celebrations of hunting cultures, just as much as it's lost in this, this kind of post-war fantasy.

Laura: Yeah. Well, actually, since, since we're here, let's maybe let's stay on the topic of, of gender and, and labor, because I think it has implications, right, for the conversations that we're having in this moment around whether it's eliminating sugar from the diet or ultra processed foods from the diet or whatever it is that I think a lot of that rests on women's unpaid labor to make that come to fruition.

Again, that's something that I think is completely left out of this conversation on, generally in nutrition, it's left out of the conversation in terms of who's actually doing this work. And I wrote a series about ultra processed foods a little while ago. And that was my central question; who's growing grains and soaking beans? And, uh, you know, like planning menus and doing the shopping? And, you know, even things like who is making sure that this fresh food is being eaten before it gets spoiled?

And, you know, that there is a lot of labor there that just kind of gets kind glossed over. And so I wondered if you could tell us some of your thoughts on the work of eradicating sugar and how that's gendered and specifically how mothers shoulder that additional reproductive labor. 

Karen: No, it's a really important point.

I think, so there's, there's a genre of newspaper story that I call the mortified mother story

Laura: I love this. 

Karen: Which is when the mother, it's always the mother, and it is always households with children. Sort of heterosexual households with children. And what the woman does is she records all the food that the family members eat.

Sometimes it's just the children. Sometimes it's the whole family including the male partner. She records everything that they eat and then the sugar is calculated and then a nutritionist or some kind of sort of dietary expert will come in and basically correct her and sort of tell her where she's going wrong and it's always a kind of shock story.

‘I had no idea I was giving them so much sugar and often, you know, I thought this was a I thought cereal bars were really healthy’. But actually they're loaded with sugar. And so those kind of revelations. And then she has a kind of confessional moment where she sort of says, ‘oh, you know, this is terrible.I've done all of these things wrong. And now I'm going to do, I'm going to calculate everything online. I'm going to cook their breakfast from scratch. I'm going to do this, that, and the other.’ 

And what's really striking about the story. Well, first of all, it's always women. The very kind of deliberate harnessing of guilt and shame that's cultivated. I haven't seen a single story of this kind or in any of the self help books that I looked at or any source that I looked at where a redistribution of household labor was part of the recommendations, right? So it's never there. It's about her doing it. But what's clever about it in a way is that it's done in such a way as to make it not work.

It's not a kind of work because it's seen as pleasure. As leisure. So she, she is being a mother and therefore, you know, she, it's meant to be, she's gaining pleasure from acquiring these new skills, from being a better mother and so on. Learning these new cooking techniques and things. And so it ends up being not coded as work, which is, uh, you know, like the perfect patriarchal fantasy and do it because they love it so much.

And so it's never even, ‘oh dear, I'm really sorry. You have to do all this extra work’. It's ‘lucky you’. Like having to get even more pleasure from cooking and but it's not just cooking. This is the thing that you alluded to as well. It's the planning; it's the shopping; it's the knowing; the remembering.

And often in the case of men, actually, one of the responsibilities of women is actually to change their tastes, if you like, without them noticing. So they're not inconvenienced by it. They don't even have to be on board. So they kind of sneak lower sugar things in so that it won't be noticed, so that they never have to actually engage with the process, but it still gets done.

And so the guilt and shame and responsibility of this also then makes it impossible to refuse it or hard to refuse it in the sense of, you know, if a good mother does this, what does it mean for someone who doesn't? Can't do it for whatever reason. And of course, all of these things that are recommended, um, in terms of sugar reduction are really oriented towards a middle class set of tastes and dispositions.

They assume that you have the money to keep a stock store cupboard of what can often be quite expensive items. That you have a fridge and freezer that you can afford to run. That you have a stove that you can run, that you, you know, that you can have on. And all of these things that you have the time, you're not working three jobs for very little money. But you have the time to cook and prepare and soak the beans and do all these things. And so the gendering of it, then it also ties to a whole set of class expectations about what a good mother is.

Laura: I think it's really interesting in the context of sort of, I don't know, third wave feminism and all the rhetoric around how, you know, women are liberated in so many different ways and, and all the, everything that you're talking about.

It sort of, I guess, covers up the, the sort of the double burden of work that women now face inside and outside of the home. And how women, particularly mothers, are still scapegoated for a lot of society's problems. Which, you know, we could debate whether or not ‘obesity’ is a problem in the first place. And sugar consumption, is a problem in the first place. But I'm just thinking about how much we still blame mothers. You know, there was um, a whole sort of theory of, well there's, there's many different mother blame theories, isn't there? Sort of ‘refrigerator mums’ causing autism. The, you know, the sort of sexist and fatphobic and racist sort of narrative around black mothers causing high levels of, of, um, unemployment in black, in black men. There's the, um, the mother blame for, you know, anorexia, that was, that was a big one. And then sort of in the mid-century, we see ‘ob*sity’ start to become blamed on mothers, which was kind of, it seems like a, a reaction to undernutrition being the issue then moving to so called ‘overnutrition’. So it feels like on one hand it's something that's very like confined to history, like it's something in the past. It's actually still going on, it's alive and well. There's academic papers being published by reputable institutions, like there was a paper I found from 2019 that blamed working mothers for higher weight children.

There was 2022 paper, saying that children's weight was dependent not on how much ultra processed food they ate, but on how much ultra processed foods their mothers ate. So then indicating this sort of butterfly effect, right? That the smallest flap of a wing can cause, you know, ‘catastrophe’, again, in inverted commas, for your child.

So that was just a bit of a download of my brain. I'm curious to hear what it kind of like, for you. I mean,

Karen: I think, I think that's a really good point. I mean, for me, this kind of raises what we could think of as a dilemma, the dilemma of femininity in itself, that you can never get it right. Right. You’re either too focused on your body or not enough, not focused enough on your body.

You know, there's, there's always that fine line that women have to walk in so many ways. And I think this comes out in the food. So one of the things I was looking for when I was looking at these stories, the, the, um, these mortified mother stories was to find one, see if I could find one where the mother was doing okay.

And I found, I found one where actually the, the, the expert couldn't really find anything wrong with the diet. They ate lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. A lot of home cooking. Um, you know, they had this, this, what would count as a healthy diet in normative terms. But then there's just this moment at the end where they say, ‘aha’. And because she had a daughter, the nutritionist said, but you don't want her to become obsessed.


You don't want the daughter to become obsessed because she'll get an eating disorder. So you need to relax. And not be over strict on sugar, you've got to give them treats sometimes, otherwise she'll go down this very dangerous path. So, again, you can control sugar for others, but not too much because you don't want to become obsessed and risk eating disorders.

And so, she literally can't ever, and so her confession is, yeah, you're right, I have been a bit strict, I'll make sure we have some treats. And so you, there's really no, no winning. I think the other thing that I thought about as you were talking, was the fact that women themselves are seen as hyper vulnerable to sugar.

Yeah. They themselves are seen as having no control over sugar. And a bit like children, actually. They're seen as being kind of incontinent in the face of sugar. And I found quite a few studies that aimed to show how women just have no kind of…couldn't do anything in the face of, in the face of sugar.

And there's, um, uh, David Gillespie, who writes about giving up sugar. He, writes about this and kind of says, you know, ‘you need to go cold turkey’. You've got to, you know, just get it out of your system. And that for men, this can happen quite quickly, but for women, it can take several months. And then doesn't really explain it.

It's sort of, there's a mention about hormones. Because that's, you know, when, you know, that's like the go to for everything. But there's no real explanation. And so there is this idea of women as needing to exercise control over the family's diet. But also of being quite dangerous in the sense that they're, they're seen as always perpetually out of control as well. And so kind of not to be trusted in that. 

Laura: We are the witches witches, 

Karen: Exactly. And so it's another dimension of the not being able to win. Like, for women in the field of diet and body, body management, it's very hard to find a position where women could be said to be kind of safe.

Laura: Absolutely. I have kind of, you know, conversations with friends about this push and pull that we experience particularly as mothers, but women broadly.

And you know, the thing I would say to my friend is like, the game is rigged, right? We cannot win. We can't win at all. So we have to figure out something that, that feels authentic to our values.


​Alright team. That is where we’re leaving off for part 1 of this episode. I’ll share part 2 in two weeks’ time where we’re talking about the sugar tax we have in the UK, how the so-called war on ‘ob*sity’ has to constantly renew itself like Madonna to make itself relevant and how ultra-processed foods are becoming the new sugar. Plus you’ll hear our snacks so make sure you’re subscribed, either on Substack at or on your podcast player. 

And if you want to support the show further and get full access to the Can I Have Another Snack universe, you can become a paid subscriber. It’s just £5/ month or £50 for the year. As well as tons of cool perks you make this work sustainable and we couldn’t do it without the support of paying subscribers. Head to to learn more and sign up today! 

Can I Have Another Snack is hosted by me, Laura Thomas, 

Our sound engineer is Lucy Dearlove

Fiona Bray formats and schedules all of our posts and makes sure they’re on time every week. Our funky artwork is by Caitlin Preyser and the music is by Jason Barkhouse. 

Thanks for listening. 

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Can I Have Another Snack?
Can I Have Another Snack?
Can I Have Another Snack? podcast is an exploration of appetite, identity, and bodies. We talk about how we feed ourselves and our kids (in all senses of the word!), and the ingredients we need to survive in diet culture. We’re sitting with the questions: who or what are we nurturing? And who or what is nurturing us? Hosted by Laura Thomas - anti-diet nutritionist and author of the Can I Have Another Snack? newsletter.